CAIRO: Religious scholars are clear in their views on conversion and in fact, Egyptian laws don t penalize the process. Instead, administrative regulations are usually what stand in the way of conversion, mainly those who choose to leave Islam.
In a predominantly Muslim community, the idea of converting to Islam doesn t sound repulsive to the majority. Yet, the process of conversion is never an easy one.
Dar Al-Iftaa, the official authority on deciding permissibility of all issues of concern, states that the penalty for those who leave Islam is death.
According to a 1979 fatwa issued by Sheikh Gad El Haq Aly Gad El Haq, leaving Islam (referred to as redda) is penalized by death. But since current laws don t allow death sentences in such cases, the fatwa continues, disciplinary measures should be taken since redda contradicts with general order. This falls under protecting the society, it adds.
The Coptic Church s stance isn t much different, although the death penalty isn t applied.
The laws of the country don’t directly support such stances. There is nothing in the constitution that penalizes conversion, says Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
In theory, converts should not go to prison, he adds. But in reality, converts lose their civil rights, and can be denied inheritance and custody of their children.
Starting in 2004, court orders began to support people s right to change their religious identification in legal documents, Bahgat explains.
The organization has documented 54 cases, including three cases of Christians who had converted to Islam, 32 cases of Christians who had returned to the Christian faith after having converted to Islam and 18 cases involving adults complaining that the Civil Affairs Department had altered their religious affiliations from Christianity to Islam without their knowledge or consent due to their fathers conversion to Islam before they had reached the age of legal competence, states the EIPR web site.
Only nine cases received a court ruling in favor of putting the person s actual faith in legal documents, according to an EIPR statement released in 2005.
In spite of these court rulings ordering the interior ministry to alter the religious affiliation in the plaintiffs identity cards, the EIPR knows of at least three cases in which ministry officials have refused to implement such rulings, continues the web site. It continues, EIPR has received information that the [Civil Affairs] Department has recently started referring people wanting to convert to Islam or Christianity to security directorates first for initial investigation.
Bahgat notes that it is generally easier for those who were born Christian and then converted to Islam and then converted back to Christianity to change their religious identification in legal documents. It is more difficult for those who were born Muslim.
People s right to privacy and to freedom of religion are guaranteed under both the constitution and the legally binding International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, says Bahgat. The interior ministry must immediately remedy this scandalous situation, which blatantly violates both Egyptian and international law.
This is due to the ministry s overall policy of addressing religious affairs from a narrow security perspective, argues the EIPR Web site.
The Ministry of Interior also arrests converts on the grounds of national security concerns, Bahgat adds.
Those converting from Islam to Christianity or any other faith face the most obstacles. Converting to Islam is facilitated and encouraged, but converting from Islam is obstructed and punished, notes Bahgat.
Socially, intolerance to conversion finds a large number of supporters. Converts often find themselves as outcasts, condemned by members of their original society.
Talk of Muslim men kidnapping young Coptic women and forcing them to convert has recently surfaced in the media. The stories also captured the attention of human rights activists here and abroad.
At the end of last year, riots took over an Alexandrian district when rumors spread that a church-sponsored play about conversion was being distributed. The play allegedly implied that Muslims used coercion and manipulation to get Copts to convert.
While many were concerned with fears of sectarian strife, the basis of conflict wasn t properly addressed. Why aren’t Egypt s two main religions tolerant of conversion?
Recently in Afghanistan, a man had a case against him for converting to Christianity from Islam dismissed, although many in the country had called for the death penalty.
Meanwhile, relationships between people from different faiths usually end up with a breakup or a marriage condemned by their families and their society.
Conversion from Islam is still taboo, admits Bahgat. It s beyond the Ministry of Interior, he says, but the state has to protect people s right to practice religion.